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January 30, 2019

Slamdance 2019: Crystal Swan

crystal swan.jpg

Darya Zhuk - 2018
Unfound Content

I have an acquaintance who has been part of the committee responsible for the Foreign Language section of the Oscars. He has a theory that the least interesting film among the final five is usually the film that gets the award. My own feeling is that often the films that fall outside the shortlist or final five are the more challenging films for a stateside viewer because they are more specific to the country of origin, and in their stories more intimate.

Crystal Swan is too bittersweet to be described as a screwball comedy, but it is about the misadventures of a young woman from Minsk, and the few days where everything goes wrong. The film takes place in 1996. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but for many, no functioning infrastructure is in its place. Velya works in a museum dedicated to Belarusian military efforts during World War II, but would rather be a DJ playing "house music" in Chicago. In an effort to gain a visa for travel to the U.S., she obtains letterhead stationary on the black market, typing in a fake work history that would be deemed more financially stable. The only problem is that the phone number for the company is not completely legible, and Velya is in a panic once its confirmed that the U.S. Embassy is going to call for verification. The phone number belongs to a family in a small town called Crystal, where Velya goes to intercept the expected phone call.

Maybe it's not deliberate, but the set-up of Crystal Swan reminds me of the screwball comedies of the 1930s with the main character running away from home for whatever reason, and finding themselves involved in unexpected situations with an eccentric group of strangers. Velya finds herself involved with a family preparing for a wedding, in a town named after its only industry, crystal artifacts. For those that live in Crystal, Minsk is as foreign as Los Angeles or Chicago. Even vaguer is Velya's notion freedom to be found in America. For Velya's mother and the people of Crystal, there's a sense of security in holding onto Soviet style thoughts and traditions. For all of her troubles, Velya does inspire one of the son's of the family that reluctantly hosts her.

Some of my favorite visual moments - a small group of Russian soldiers high stepping in a subway station, a house party in a warehouse filled with statues of Soviet heroes, a tracking shot of the Crystal family setting up tables for the backyard wedding reception, and a group of school children joyfully abandoning their chairs as soon as the VHS tape of Belarusian history malfunctions. With her round face and mop of blonde hair, lead actress Alina Nasibullina reminded me somewhat of a younger version of R. W. Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla. Crystal Swan is Darya Zhuk's first feature after several short films. This was also the first film from Belarus in over twenty years to be submitted for Oscar consideration.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 30, 2019 08:20 AM